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TX: 29.01.04 – FILM STAR DEBRA WINGER TALKS ABOUT HER PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF BEING BLIND

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

WAITE
Now we stay with US film stars because Hollywood actress Debra Winger, of course, starred in the Oscar winning film Terms of Endearment, as well as An Officer and a Gentleman, and Shadowlands, filmed in Oxford, the story of C.S. Lewis's tragic love affair with Joy Gresham. She is known for the emotional intensity she portrays on screen. But what is less well known about Debra Winger is that when she was 17 she was thrown from a moving truck in an amusement park and almost died of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was left partly paralysed and without her sight for 10 long months. Now Debra has spoken very little about that incident but was recently asked by the charity Sight Savers International to help raise the profile of their work in tackling preventable blindness and supporting blind people in the developing world. She's just back from visiting a Sight Savers project in Kenya and agreed to talk to our Peter White about her own dramatic experience.

WINGER
First I thought, you know, that I was getting punished for something, which I think when you're 17 there's a lot of things to be punished for. But I think I felt that my eyes were being turned inward and that I was having a chance to look at - it's a point in your life where you're really deciding what you're going to go out there and do.

WHITE
And did you think the damage was going to be permanent?

WINGER
Yes, yes, when it first happened they told me that I wouldn't see again. So I think in a way that was a great opportunity - had they told me - Oh don't worry, this is temporary - I probably wouldn't have had as big of an experience with it as I did. But because I was told that I wouldn't see again I really sort of braced myself for that. And I will say that my first response was quite negative and I felt very desperate and I thought I probably didn't want to live, which since I've talked to people that have gone blind, that were not born blind, that's not an uncommon thing.

WHITE
How long did it last?

WINGER
Ten months - I lost my vision for 10 months. And then when I got it back it was at different stages. First I saw light, then I saw movement and then I saw sort of - everything was like a dolly painting, I had no depth of field for quite some time, which was quite psychotic. So there were different stages.

WHITE
And while you were blind, quite apart from the fear of remaining blind, can you remember what you felt at the time were the most frustrating things about it - because as you say you did feel quite negative about the whole …?

WINGER
Right well I imagined that everybody would like me so much more and I imagined - I think I confused pity with love, I don't know it was pity - I could tell, I could feel it, it was palpable and it didn't feel like compassion, it wasn't even in the same ball park. And so it was quite frustrating.

WHITE
Did you get as far as actually trying to learn how to do things as a blind person?

WINGER
Yes well I learned how many steps it was to the balcony so that I could jump - does that count?

WHITE
It's not normally regarded as part of orthodox rehabilitation but I guess it's how you felt.

WINGER
Well you know when it's temporary those are some of the first things I learned, was just that I was angry, I was quite angry. But once the anger transformed into something else then I felt sort of the other end of it because if you've noticed I'm not a very calm person, I tend to go from one extreme to the other and so I was going to be the first heroically blind actress.

WHITE
Were you already thinking then - when that happened - of acting as a career?

WINGER
No I was in school, actually it was the thing that made me decide to act, once I got my sight back, definitely. But when I was in the hospital I thought well you know they can put speed bumps on the end of the stage, you know, and I won't fall off - tried to keep a sense of humour about it.

WHITE
They'd probably do that now, it's just the kind of thing they do.

WINGER
Yes, yeah there you go.

WHITE
Was getting your sight back a surprise, do they understand what happened?

WINGER
They don't quite understand and you know when doctors don't understand things they have a tendency to use wording that insults the patient - have you noticed that?

WHITE
Yeah.

WINGER
So I'm not - so obviously not going to repeat what they've decided but …

WHITE
You mean hysterical is the word?

WINGER
Yes, yes that's it.

WHITE
You then went on to have this extraordinary acting career that you're still having, was that experience helpful to you - you've played some very emotionally charged parts as an actress?

WINGER
I think the experience that I had sort of gave me a sense of my own mortality, let's put it that way. It was an accident that also endangered my life. I think I felt grateful at a certain point that I hadn't and that was a certain amount of energy given from that.

WHITE
So when Sight Savers did come along, found you and asked you to do this what made you agree, given that you hadn't talked about this and you had - not necessarily kept it quiet - but not made it a big part of your life?

WINGER
Well when I read the material something struck me as different than other things I have read, in that I saw that there were more personal stories than a society where money goes out, maybe a lot of money goes out, to a lot of people and it's spread sort of thin. But there was something very personal about the magazine that they put out and also the information that I read. As I was in Kenya - I mean your moments from the time I've arrived back - I experienced such extraordinary personal stories where I saw that because they have a network set up in specific areas what's happening is that people's individual lives are being transformed, as opposed to there's a society where they can go and maybe get some more books or find a good school or - it isn't like that. I mean I met a man named Raymond who is self-sufficient, has a farm, has a wife and three children - this all happened after his blindness from an operation on a brain tumour.

WHITE
Did it shock you the amount of blindness which is either preventable or curable in the developing world?

WINGER
Well that's a good question and that was absolutely the very first thing that sort of - when I opened the material I said - that's not possible, it's a misprint. I thought that's not possible that 80% is either preventable or curable, I mean I just - I don't know of anything else that that statistic exists for. Actually that was probably the thing I said the most before I left, when people asked me why. And I guess the second part of that is how many things in this day and age, especially right now, can you see a result immediately from? How many things - I mean when we were out in - visiting these schools and these children had their heads bent back and they were having tetracycline drops being put into their eyes and something was better immediately. How many things in your life are you going to feel that from? It's amazing.

WAITE
Actress Debra Winger talking to Peter White.




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